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Join a retail revolution

April 9, 2012

(Published in TTG 22.03.12)

From iPads to digital windows, keeping up with in-store technology trends can help you break down barriers with younger clients and make your store a ‘cool’ place to be. Matthew Parsons reports

When Designer Travel’s Debra Hammond spoke at a local college earlier this month, she says the reaction when she introduced herself as a travel agent was “like I was swearing at them”. Not only did some students at Sussex Downs College believe agents in general “rip you off” because television adverts encourage you to book independently, but they seemed highly unlikely to walk into their local high street store.

It seems a challenge to entice younger travellers into high street agencies – most of which are “stuck in the 1970s, with their bank of desks barring agent from customer” according to one senior travel professional.

However, better use of technology and a more playful approach may help to solve what Hammond declares is a “negative attitude” among teenage and twenty-something travellers, and in turn reinvigorate sales on the high street – which is a cornerstone of TTG’s latest Trust in Travel Agents campaign: Backing our British high streets.

Play time

Virgin Holidays is one such company taking in-store technology seriously. At its High Street Kensington “Emporium”, which opened last December, an 80-inch screen displaying the words “Play with me” greets customers.

For Patrick Berrera (pictured bottom right), project manager at Virgin Holidays for the past four years, a shop must now be “a cool place to sit in” and a unique experience.

“It’s welcoming, and designed to entice people in. They’re curious, as there’s lots of theatre created with all of the screens,” he says. “When people walk in, the reaction is ‘wow’.”

The screens in question don’t just display offers, but let users browse destinations via iPads, or come to life using augmented-reality technology.

Customers are encouraged to pick up iPads and point at so-called digital windows to create an illusion – triggering a cruise ship to sail right by, or a snowboarder to dash past – or even to load brochures via QR codes.

“It all says to the customer: ‘come and talk to us when you’re ready’,” Berrera believes, adding that this soft-sell approach has been perfected by Apple in its stores.

“Travel can learn from Apple. You’re encouraged to play. Obviously they want you to buy something, but it doesn’t feel that way. If the experience is good, the customer will come back.

“Virgin is a customer-centric brand; we entertain the customer, and meet their needs,” he adds.

Getting the layout right as well as the technology is key, advises Berrera, stressing that shops need to break down the barrier between agent and customer by sharing the view of a computer screen between them.

While it is still too early to ascertain whether the hi-tech investment has boosted sales, the store will carry on targeting “early adopters” (those in the 24 to early-30s age bracket) as Virgin Holidays claims the impact on customer satisfaction is worth the “heavy” costs.

External view

Lee Hunt, managing director of Deben Travel in Woodbridge, Suffolk, is taking a different approach, deciding to focus on the exterior of his store, conscious that many people just don’t have the time to walk into an agency.

Hunt has installed a digital window screen, with a 50-inch television displaying professional images, videos and offers. He uses Trailstream, which rents out the equipment from “a few hundred pounds per quarter”, and provides content for more than 2,000 properties. He also displays a large vinyl QR code.

He explains: “As we close at 5.30pm each day, people walking by on the way to the pub or restaurant can scan our QR code. Then, when they’re in the pub, they can look and see exactly what holidays are available. Or it’s saved on their phone for whenever they have a spare moment.”

However, he urges any company thinking of doing this to first ensure they have a “decent mobile website” full of up-to-date product.

In store, meanwhile, Deben Travel has more QR codes to direct people to different destinations, an idea taken from his time as regional manager for pharmacy chain Boots. Most product launches in a Boots store, such as shaving cream or shampoo, would feature QR codes in order to quickly direct people to the brand website.

He also believes busier agencies should arm their meet-and-greet staff with iPads. Not only is it a “good way to look a bit more modern”, but it helps with data capture as staff can take the details of anyone who enters immediately.

Hunt also thinks embracing new technology is a tactical plus for independents in the battle against larger companies such as Thomas Cook, which would likely need to “spend thousands” and take longer to roll out in-store technology.

The verdict

Virgin Holidays’ Berrera (pictured) says: “Technology is a cost-effective way to make an impression; you can’t deny that most people nowadays have a smartphone.”

But introducing new elements is not without risks. As well as financial investment, managers need to invest time in training staff, on how to introduce technology into the sales dialogue for example.

Agencies must also be wary of information overload – just because something is “new”, it does not mean it should be in a retail store.

Meanwhile, Virgin Holidays is working on a new iPad app designed for use in-store and out, in a bid to break down the boundaries even further. It’s all under wraps for now, but Berrera is set to speak about the “iPad concept” at an invite-only Apple business conference in April, alongside Blue Juice, the digital agency he worked with on the High Street Kensington store.

Whatever approach high street shops take next to attract the new generation of consumers, the hope is students will be swearing by rather than at travel agents next time Hammond visits her local college.

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